Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky (1904?---1948) was born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian to Armenian parents, both widowers. Armenian Christians in Ottoman Turkey endured great persecution. Escalating to an almost ten year genocide that killed many of his relatives, including his mother, he escaped to America in 1920 with his sister. In 1906, Gorky’s father fled to America doing little for his family ever after. Turkey and Armenia were affected by World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Balkan Wars with the resulting extreme displacement of people’s adding up to a time of great turmoil and upheaval. In America, he lived through the Great Depression.

Gorky obfuscated his artistic sources in the same way that he did his life story, even his name, though many emigrants did the same. The vivid horror that he knew was likely too painful to acknowledge. He was an avid reader, and the New York Times reported almost daily on the grim realities. Gorky did not speak of the atrocities he witnessed and experienced, although many thousands of Armenians like himself had fled the untenable situation and were living in the United States.

Though some have seen his early work as derivative of the masters he intensely studied, it can be seen positively as a working through the history of art from the earliest Near Eastern, Egyptian, Medieval Eastern Manuscripts, Renaissance, 19th century, Cezanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miró, Matta. Perhaps the most astute artist of the time, he repeatedly studied art in galleries and museums, particularly the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of all styles and periods. Museums were his classes, his academy, his lessons.

He was seldom able to live comfortably without assistance and never owned a house or land. In spite of this, he spent his money on the best art materials and kept his studio very clean. His drawings on finely crafted paper are where he worked out repeatedly and over long periods of time forms and spaces for his paintings. His draughtsmanship is extraordinarily fine, and he drew always and especially when he could not afford paint. A monograph of Gorky’s paintings has been done [1], but a monograph on his drawings is needed [2]. A recent retrospective showing both the preparatory drawings and subsequent paintings would be welcome. 

While many drawings are untitled, many have titles and are part of thematic series (Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia, for example).  A great number of drawings and paintings are titled after nature: Garden in Sochi, Waterfall, Water of the Flowery Mill, One Year the Milkweed, In the Garden, Plow and the Song, Landscape, Summer Snow. He loved the countryside all of his life, though he primarily lived in New York City. Fish, flowers, plows, leaves, human organs, and birds twisted and turned again and again until they became simply lines and shapes in his workings, re-workings, and more workings.  Gorky would talk about his father’s garden in Armenia and his horse and dog with great fondness and longing.  These evocations are as surely there as the lead in his pencils and the paint on his brushes.

Friends with Willem de Kooning, John Graham (born Ivan Dabrowsky), Isamu Noguchi, Stuart Davis, and other now famous artists, he was also accepted as a Surrealist by André Breton, de facto head of the group. His first one man show, Abstract Drawings by Arshile Gorky, was presented by Margaret Lefranc and Anna Walinska in 1935 in their recently opened Guild Art, where he signed a three year contract [3].

These seminal early exhibitions, along with his federal government work project studies and mural for the Newark Airport in 1937, teaching at the Grand Central School of Art, and students such as Ethel Schwabacher (also his biographer) [4] and Mark Rothko (born Markus Rothkowitz), gave Gorky confidence and increased visibility. 

A series of calamities occurred when his art was at its zenith in the prime of his life (we can mourn what might have been).  At the beginning of 1946, his studio full of artwork burned down; surgery for colorectal cancer followed. A fire at his sister’s had already ruined a number of early drawings and paintings [5]. A devastating car accident in 1948 that required traction in the hospital and a collar around his neck along with his increasing marital troubles proved too much. He committed suicide in July 1948 at age 44 which grieved Margaret who was living in Nambe, New Mexico. Any one of these might have felled a lesser man. Both the beginning and the end of his life were filled with grief.

Arshile Gorky was a man between: Armenia and America; Paris and New York; country and city; linear and painterly; Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism; portraiture and abstraction; geometry and biomorphism; foreground and background.  He searched for the essence of being, of form. 

In his best drawings and paintings, he synthesizes these elements into a unique whole that goes beyond labels. This latter is why there has been a struggle to place his art. That his brilliance was recognized by Lefranc who kindly let him out of his contract for more money and more exhibitions is notable.

The enigmatic 1944 work The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, now in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and The Artist and His Mother, c.1926---36, now in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, are his two most famous pieces. Both of the paintings exist in a number of studies and drawings and manifest Gorky’s diversity. 

Ashile Gorky was a poet and an avid letter writer, many of which survive that are a good source of his thoughts. He was a slender but commanding 6’4” man of intense artistic vision and knowledge whose surviving oeuvre continually intrigues those who can see. 

[1] Jordan, Jim M., and Robert Goldwater.  The Paintings of Arshile Gorky:  A Critical Catalogue.  New York and London, 1980.   Abbreviated Cat. Rais. 

[2] Melvin P. Ladder, Arshile Gorky:  Three Decades of Drawings, The Peters Corporation, Santa Fe, Dallas, New York, 1990 (Gerald Peters Catalogue)

[3] Lois Katz, A Lifetime of Imaging:  The Art of Margaret Lefranc, Miami, 2007, pp.113-115

[4] Ethel K. Schwabacher, Arshile Gorky, United States of America, 1958

[5] Nouritza Matossian, Black Angel:  A Life of Arshile Gorky, Great Britain, 1998, pp.220---221